William Hallé was born in Richmond, Surrey in 1912. His father was related to the Hallé who founded the orchestra, and his mother was a direct descendant of Sir Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II. He was around forty-seven years old when he painted this self-portrait. It is a touchingly curious painting. There is an almost jokey dichotomy between the persona of conventional, pipe-smoking man in suit, tie and spectacles, with a serious yet benign mien, and the vibrant, fluid means of expression. The rich, coalescing colours give the picture a flavour of semi-abstraction, though sure underlying figurative structure is retained.
A 1965 exhibition catalogue contains a black-and-white photograph of a gently smiling William Hallé. With his neat moustache, receding, slicked-back dark hair, heavy, horn-rimmed glasses and, dark tie, white shirt, pullover and checked tweed jacket, he resembles much more closely the stereotype of, say, an affable, conventional businessman in smart-casual clothes than that of a ‘wild’ artist. This kind of respectability is still present in his 1959 self-portrait, yet it co-exists with the image of the artist as a mysterious, semi-abstracted presence, conjured up from a fluctuating palette.
Hallé was indeed a rare colourist, whose use of deep, shifting colour expressed a sense of the pristine freshness of the world. He had evidently learned a good deal from the Fauves and the German Expressionists. In 1965, he wrote: ‘From early days my contemplation of objects went with a longing to procure not information of the ordinary kind, but the fullest visual impression, so that when I was sent to bed I could take my seen object with me… I wanted things to keep an aura of mystery. I did not want to know too much about them’.
It was while living in London’s East End, aged twenty, that, contemplating reproductions in an art book in a public library, he decided to become a painter. He attended evening classes at Bethnal Green Men’s Institute, and during wartime Army service, enrolled in local art schools wherever he was stationed. Until the mid-1970s, he exhibited regularly in London. Then for about twenty years he stopped painting (but kept sketching), and in the mid 1990s began painting and exhibiting again. His art became virtually abstract in the early 1960s, somewhat in the manner of Nicolas de Staël, though he soon returned to his own kind of poetic, often visionary figuration.